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Urban Design, the Book: Part Two of a Review

07/23/2010 06:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A few weeks ago, I concluded Part One of this review of the book Urban Design (edited by Alex Krieger and William S. Saunders) by referring to Joan Busquets' brief contribution to the book in which he cited ten eclectic "contemporary approaches" to urbanism to illustrate the viability of urban design today. Busquets is optimistic about what he calls "urbanism" despite what he admits was a disappointing past; he introduces his ten approaches by stating that "in recent decades urbanism has been able to redeem itself from the general perception that urban transformation meant spatial and environment poverty" and that "urbanism has now strongly reestablished its intellectual and professional abilities."

I would argue, however, that instead of providing justification for the field of urban design, the works that Busquets identified illustrate why the field is unnecessary or even counterproductive.

The problem is not that Busquets' "approaches" vary too much to define an academic field or a profession. While they range widely, from projects like Rem Koolhaas' large-scale contemporary Eurolille to Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk's small-scale traditional Seaside, and the designers represented by the ten approaches "couldn't agree on lunch," the problem with urban design is not a lack of unanimity of thinking. Rigorous debate typically characterizes healthy intellectual enterprises.

The problem is whether anything urban design purports to add to architecture is relevant to the results.

It's significant that Busquets' optimism clangs when it hits against the despair of much of the rest of the book. As I pointed out in the first part of this review, near the end of the transcript of the colloquium that concludes the book, book co-editor William Saunders had to admit that none of the participants in the colloquium had been able to identify new models for even so much as a "designed urban district." Even more telling, at the very end of the colloquium, and 50 years after the 1956 conference that initiated the field of urban design, Saunders' co-editor Alex Krieger was still seeking a definition of the term. He nonetheless declared "those who think urban design doesn't exist are wrong." But his rhetorical retort to these non-believers was sad: "It [urban design] exists in many ways, including as a colloquial term for better planning and urban quality of life."

Krieger is a professor of urban design at Harvard. Do his students go to Harvard to study a colloquial term?

There is a paradox with urban design that involves scope and ambition. If the field is going to have any meaning beyond its architectural component, then there must be a "big vision" component. And that is what the founders of the field envisioned -- that urban designers would do great things making and remaking cities. But history has shown that these big, "convulsive" plans rarely fit real world circumstances and in the 20th century were typically disastrous. Big visions imply theoretical and ideological (not to mention financial) motivations and rationalizations, while the more appropriate solution to any given urban problem may be found by looking closely at the facts on the ground -- the place itself. Contrary to Daniel Burnham's famous endorsement of "big plans," "little plans" are more often what a given site (or city) needs.

Busquet's examples and the projects other contributors to the book identify as the product of urban design illustrate this. The names Busquets gives his approaches are telling: names like "synthetic gestures," "tactical maneuvers," "reconfigured surfaces," "piecemeal aggregations," "traditional views," "recycled territories," "core retrofitting." These categories indicate that for the most part the projects are simply (and I don't mean this negatively) architectural adaptations to existing or revived urban plans.

Krieger is correct that under the "colloquial term" of urban design people can do good work. You only have to look at some of the projects identified by Busquets or discussed in the book Grid/Street/Place, which I reviewed for Huffington Post a few months ago, to find good projects. But one has to ask -- when looking at the design component -- where's the urban design? Isn't this what architecture is (or should be)?

Cities are too complex to have their issues aggregated under one intellectual roof. There are too many specialties involved for a generalist to do a good job, and the factors that are most important to a city (ranging from good schools to transportation infrastructure) are not design-dependent. As Jane Jacobs told the 1956 conference, "[a] store is also a storekeeper."

I don't mean that the specialists should defer to each other's expertise. The opposite is true; traffic engineers who care only about moving cars have ruined as many places as urban designers with utopian plans. (And they have been known to work in cahoots.) The specialists must keep each other in check, and each must take responsibility for the good of the whole. Ultimately, and even more importantly, the public must be allowed to articulate its interests. In many ways the most interesting essay in urban design is one by John Kaliski called "Democracy Takes Command: New Community Planning and the Challenge to Urban Design," in which he states, referring to several examples from the Los Angeles area, that "these demonstrate that citizen experts rather than planners or designers are firmly in charge of the evolution and design of the city."

By positing itself as an overarching field, with the urban designer as a kind of savant-king, urban design does two bad things: it slights the factors that are more important to the health of cities than design, and by implicitly separating urban context from architecture it lets architects "off the hook" from their responsibilities to the public realm.

Architects, like lawyers, have clients, with their private needs. But just as lawyers have a duty to the justice system as a whole, architects also have implicit clients -- the public -- who have needs, too. Part of the "commodiousness" of a building should be how it serves people who may never enter it. These demands on the architect have nothing to do with matching a stylistic context, but everything to do with the functional context -- the needs of the public at a particular site.

What Busquets and Krieger would identify as good urban design is nothing more or less than good architecture in a good place. The goodness of the place is not likely to be primarily the product of design.

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column on local politics, which often involve land use issues, for the Santa Monica Lookout News, a news website. His first book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, was published last year by City Image Press.

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